Today (Thursday, June 18th) marks what would have been Chris Pickett’s 60th birthday.
I want to honor the memory of this man, that I was proud to call my friend, with a reflection of his life. A life that endured horrific personal tragedies, but managed to influence the lives of so many student athletes from far and wide that included places like Cookeville, Gainesboro, Pulaski, and his beloved hometown of Monteagle and Grundy County, along with the surrounding communities near these places.
Chris Pickett was a fierce competitor as an athlete as well as a coach. He excelled in every sport he participated, as well as every sport he coached. He played baseball all the way to the collegiate level. He played football throughout high school. He played Big 8 basketball at Monteagle, where he led the fourth seeded Hornets to a surprising repeat championship in 1974 by scoring 50 points in the three tournament games. He was a talented slow pitch softball player throughout the 1980s and ‘90s.
Chris played college baseball at Roane State Community College his freshman and sophomore seasons. He continued his collegiate career at Tennessee Tech. Chris was the starting catcher all four years.
In the spring of 1976, during his sophomore year in high school, he became the starting catcher for the Yellow Jacket baseball team. His leadership ability blossomed during his high school days as the Jackets improved their record each year. During his senior year of 1978 the Jackets would lose in the district finals to the eventual state runner up Notre Dame.
In high school football, Chris led the Jackets to an improbable six game winning streak and an invitation to the Butter Bowl in the fall of 1977 during his senior season. Optimism ran rampant for the football team in 1977, but an injured starting quarterback and a political controversy in the school system distracted the start of the season.
The Jackets started 0 – 2 as veteran QB Joey Blalock tried to play through a shoulder injury. A heartbreaking 21 – 19 loss to South Pittsburg and a home game moved at the last minute to Chattanooga resulted in a 38 – 24 loss to Notre Dame.
Chris Pickett became the starter at QB in the third game of the season. It was a home game against rival Marion County, a team the Jackets hadn’t beaten since 1970. The Jackets prevailed 20 – 0 and it gave the Jacket faithful a glimmer of hope of salvaging the season.
The next week resulted in a 34 – 0 loss to Soddy – Daisy, but it would be the last regular season loss. With a 1 – 3 record and a slate of five straight away games including the fourth ranked McMinn Central Chargers the task seemed daunting. However, with head coach Doug Pittenger, all state tailback Jerry Bryant and the leadership of QB Chris Pickett the Jackets stormed through their final six games and secured their first winning season in 13 years and a trip to the Butter Bowl to play Rhea County.
His coaching began as a graduate assistant at Tennessee Tech with the baseball team. His football coaching began as an assistant coach at Jackson County under Steve Medlin. He followed Coach Medlin back to his alma mater in 1985 to help rebuild a struggling Yellow Jacket football program. Along with longtime friend Ted Ladd, they were set to help Coach Medlin bring the Yellow Jacket football program back to life.
During the same school year, Ladd became the head baseball coach and Pickett was named as his assistant. Although those were their titles, it was more an association because of their extensive and knowledgeable backgrounds in baseball.
Yellow Jacket baseball became competitive after a 2 – 8 season in 1985. The next three seasons would result in two 4 – 6 seasons followed by a 5 – 4 season in 1988. On the baseball side of things, the Yellow Jackets became fixtures in the district and regional finals. They made trips to the state tournament in 1988 and 1992.
When Coach Medlin resigned to go back to Cookeville to manage his family business after the untimely death of his father, Chris Pickett became the head coach at his alma mater, GCHS.
The 5 – 4 1988 season gave the Jackets their first winning season in 10 years. Chris Pickett’s eight year run as the head coach at Grundy County would include winning seasons in his first six seasons. The Jacket football program was in postseason play in all eight seasons under Chris. The 1989, 1990, and 1992 teams won the Walking Horse Bowl championship in Lewisburg. The 1991 team made Yellow Jacket history by being the first team in the history of the sport at Grundy County to make the playoffs. The Jackets would be a fixture in the playoffs from 1993 – 1996. The 1993 Yellow Jackets went 10 – 3 and made it to the Class 3A quarterfinals in the first year of the five classification system implemented by TSSAA. His eight year record from 1989 – 96 was 53 – 36.
After the 1996 – 97 school year, Chris resigned to become the head baseball coach at Cookeville High School. After a few years leading the Cavalier baseball team he took the head baseball coaching job at Richland High School in Giles County. He also became an assistant football coach at Richland.
In September of 2006, I received a phone call from my “old friend”, Chris Pickett. I had just found out a couple hours earlier I had been named as the director of schools. He called to congratulate me and to tell me if the chance came, he would love to come back and coach at GCHS. As I thought about his request, I reflected on the success he had accomplished years earlier.
Head coach Greg Brewer resigned his head coaching position at the conclusion of the 2006 – 07 school year opening the door for a possible return for Pickett. He applied, interviewed and was hired to bring Yellow Jacket football back once again.
It was an exciting time on the mountain as former players and fans were once again excited about Yellow Jacket football. Everyone couldn’t wait to see Coach Pickett in his patented sweatshirt and sweatpants standing on the football field with his whistle in hand watching his troops, barking out orders with some of his comical, but philosophical sayings while he twirled his whistle around his index finger.
Coach Brewer was more than willing to be an assistant to his old boss. Ted Ladd was eager to accompany his old friend in trying to rekindle the magic the duo had made in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Also, now there were some former players eager to work as assistant coaches under their beloved mentor. Exciting times were on the horizon.
Just as the excitement was blooming a dark cloud dimmed the enthusiasm with the news that Coach Pickett had been diagnosed with throat cancer. It was devastating news to a community that had been brimming with the excitement of Coach Pickett’s return.
A determined man with a fierce competitive nature that wasn’t going to be stopped with such horrible news, Coach Pickett was determined to coach his alma mater back to glory and have an opportunity to coach his son, Cory, in his senior season.
The 2007 season was a struggle as Chris fought through the pain and weakness from his treatments to coach the Yellow Jackets. The team was 2 – 6 and set to travel to McMinn Central on Friday, October 19th. However, tragedy struck the community on Thursday morning, October 18th, with the shocking news that Chris Pickett had passed away in his sleep that morning. It was heartbreaking to everyone that knew and loved Chris.
Even as I sit here writing about Chris, his impact on me is so powerful. I have had to stop a few times because of the emotions that have overwhelmed me at times. That was how he could touch people. I know there are many people far and wide that can relate because of the impact he has had on their lives.
As I thought about my “old friend”, I realized that he endured a very painful personal life. In a conversation with his wife, Joyce, we discussed his personal tragedy and yet the impact he had on so many. She felt that his personal tragedies helped drive him to strive to help the student athletes he molded.
He lost his father in a senseless murder when he was a young boy and then lost his four year daughter, Hannah, in a tragic home accident. It was more than anyone should ever have to go through.
However, Chris would work through his personal pain to become a leader as a player and a coach. He motivated and inspired teammates as a player and countless student athletes as a coach. To this day, those individuals always speak with pride and love for their former teammate or mentor in sharing vivid memories of their experiences. He truly had a profound effect on so many people during his lifetime.
As I conclude, I feel I echo the sentiments of many people far and wide, when I say “thank you, Chris” for the memories and the life lessons you gave us all. I know that Joyce, Cory, and his brother Greg share a hurt that we can never know, it safe to say we will always have Chris in our hearts as well.
As I said before, seeing Chris in my mind in his sweats twirling that whistle around his index finger standing with his legs crossed, Happy Birthday, my dear friend! We miss you!